Cannabis and Climate Change Environmental Impacts
Every industry has a potential environmental downside. However, some industries are less polluting than others.
The cannabis industry provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to other practices. For example, hemp provides a better solution to textile, rope, and construction material manufacturing. Cultivation of all cannabis plants also captures carbon, often more effectively than entire forests.
While there are many benefits to cannabis cultivation, alarm bells have also been wrung for its downsides. Cultivating and manufacturing cannabis products has a carbon footprint that can’t be ignored. In addition, when done illegally, cannabis farming can harm ecosystems by clearing forests and fields.
As cannabis legalisation sweeps across the world, understanding the environmental impact is the key to wise regulations. Let’s look into both the benefits and drawbacks that cannabis has on the environment.
The potential environmental downsides of cannabis cultivation and manufacturing surround several factors:
- Pesticide use
- Energy use
- Land cover change
- Water use
- Water pollution
- Air pollution
These are the documented environmental side-effects of the cannabis industry. Many of them come as no surprise, as every farming and manufacturing process has at least some environmental impact. The question of cannabis’s downsides must naturally shift to a comparison between it and the alternatives.
Each cultivation method has its downsides. When it comes to impact on climate change, indoor growing has a much higher energy output than mixed-light and outdoor growing. However, outdoor growing can cause land-cover changes, including the removal of forests. The latter is seen as less of an issue, as cannabis land use is relatively small in the grand scheme of agriculture.
Cannabis cultivation offers several environmental benefits that fight carbon emissions.
While planted, cannabis plants are excellent for carbon capture. However, the catch is that outdoor growing is the route to a better carbon footprint. Indoor cannabis cultivation has a decidedly negative effect on carbon emissions. Outdoor is a different story. For example, industrial hemp (grown outdoors) absorbs 8 to 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre. So, cannabis has a great effect on our carbon footprint while planted.
Environmentally Friendly Products
Hemp provides an environmentally friendly alternative to many products that cause high carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. The crop has been used in manufacturing for thousands of years. Now, it still offers a sustainable alternative to materials used in clothes, ropes, construction, paint, fuels, and more.
Compared to other crops, cannabis doesn’t require much water and land. With outdoor growing, cannabis crops can be planted in close proximity to each other. Compared to “cash crops” like cotton, they produce far less waste during the agricultural process.
Cannabis growth often doesn’t necessitate pesticide and herbicide use. It may in some cases, but it is normally avoidable and not excessive. For example, hemp is naturally resistant to most pests.
Excessive use of herbicides and pesticides is one of the causes of damage to natural ecosystems. They contaminate the soil, air, and water, including runoff, which can then spread to other ecosystems. In addition, they also damage people’s health.
Optimising Eco-Friendly Cannabis
As is often the case, it is possible to make the cannabis industry create a decidedly positive environmental impact.
The deciding factor on cannabis cultivation’s environmental impact is the energy source.
Many cannabis farms use natural gas or solar power, which produce lower emissions than other alternatives. Naturally, the location of a cannabis farm will have a significant impact on its emissions. Likewise, the altitude of a cannabis farm will impact its emissions. Within the cannabis industry in Colorado, cannabis farms in low-lying Denver produced fewer carbon emissions than the farms further up the mountains.
One of the roadblocks to environmentally friendly cannabis is federal law. Federal law prohibits most cannabis from crossing state lines, forcing farm owners to stay in-state. If the owner wants to minimise their environmental impact, their choice in ideal locations is more limited.
The key to environmentally friendly cannabis is using the plant’s natural carbon capture potential while actively minimising the energy consumption used in cultivation. There are several steps any cannabis farm can take to minimise its negative environmental impact.
Clean Energy Indoors
Indoor cannabis farming doesn’t need to be dirty. Farmers can use indoor growing methods while applying clean energy for their operations. When planting indoors, HVAC requires immense energy output. But if you use the cleanest energy sources available, carbon emissions can be minimised.
Many environmentalists don’t suggest switching to the outdoors outright. Outdoor growing is better for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but comes with its own issues.
Cannabis farming conducted in mixed-light greenhouses or outdoors is always more energy efficient. The mere shift from indoor to outdoor growing results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions falling by 42% to 92%. Choosing outdoor growing while avoiding its own environmental challenges presents a greener option. Those challenges include:
- Water diversion
- Pesticide use
- Land-use change
With responsible and legal use of water, land, and pesticides, the negative environmental impact of outdoor farming can be further reduced.
What’s the Greenest Choice?
Ultimately, all three cannabis cultivation methods can be optimised for the best environmental impact. A combination of outdoor, indoor, and greenhouse cultivation with an ideal outcome is possible. Understanding the impact and making wise individual choices is key. With thoughtful cultivation processes, cannabis, and in particular hemp, have a lot to offer the environment.